Thursday, April 20, 2017

Albany Records partners with Purchase Opera to Release a Politically-Charged Opera

At the beginning of this year, Albany Records released its third recording of an opera produced by Purchase Opera, the ensemble for the performance of fully-staged operas associated with the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York network of higher-education institutions. The production recorded on this recent release is Robert Ward’s four-act opera The Crucible, whose libretto by Bernard Stambler was, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play of the same name. The opera was commissioned by the New York City Opera in 1961, a time when the historical impact of Miller’s play had not yet faded from cultural memory.

Miller wrote his play in 1953, a time when much of the country’s population had been stirred into a collective paranoia based on the threat that Communism would undermine the principles of government in the United States. That paranoia was fueled by investigations of “un-American activities” by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Like many who took pride in maintaining an objective intellect, Miller was called before the House Committee, where he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to provide names of other intellectuals whom the Committee felt might be threats to “the American way of life.” Many who were sympathetic to those called to testify started to refer to the search for “un-Americans” as a “witch hunt;” so Miller decided to respond to both the Congressional activities and the prevailing metaphor by writing a play about the Salem witch trials.

Late in his life Miller himself was invited to write a screenplay based on his play, and the film of the same name came out in 1996. This resulted in Miller getting a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; but the film itself was far from a box office hit, in spite of having cast Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Paul Scofield. The bottom line is that the film was too talky and didactic for people who went to the movies for little more than escapism.

In many respects Ward’s opera faces a similar problem, particularly today. The original New York City Opera production was released as a recording not long after its first round of performances. After than all was silence; so this new release from Albany is the first in over 50 years. The good news is that Ward had a very keen ear for setting prose, meaning the Stambler’s libretto, for its time, had the same intense impact that Miller’s original text did. However, that is also the bad news. The didacticism of the libretto is underscored by what now sounds like a dated rhetoric. Even though the opera itself reinforces a signature episode in our country’s past history, it’s message struggles to register with an audience that almost revels in its ignorance of history.

By all rights, in a society in which mass mentality is more malleable than a stick of butter, the message behind The Crucible is as relevant as it was when Miller wrote his play, if not more so. The problem is that this is just not the sort of thing that the current generation of listeners wants to have coming out of their portable devices and into their earbuds. Indeed, considering what happened to that 1996 film, even a video document of the Purchase production would be unlikely to get through to much of an audience base. (Sitting still in an opera house for a couple of hours is even more out of the question.) Nevertheless, those who are sensitive to our country’s history may very well appreciate both the narrative and the musical setting in Ward’s opera; but that experience may only serve to underscore their depression in regarding the blissful oblivion of those who surround them.

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